The rocky road to peace between Ethiopia and Tigray

31 October 2022 – Mukesh Kapila

This article first appeared on 27 October 2022 in The Daily Maverick

The brutal civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is nearly two years old.  South Africa is hosting African Union mediated peace talks in Pretoria this week.  What progress can be expected?

I hope that the rival delegations of Ethiopia and Tigray are comfortably housed by their South African hosts who are providing for their every need.  This is vital because bitter foes dragged shouting and screaming by outsider pressure, must first be soothed. A suitable mood has to be created to build trust – the essential underpinning for meaningful negotiations to end Africa’s most appalling war. 

I discovered the importance of a conducive environment at first hand  when, as head of the United Nations in Sudan in 2003-4, I hosted the humanitarian track of talks to  end Africa’s longest-running conflict between the Sudan government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) who eventually went on to lead the new Republic of South Sudan.   

The luxurious Windsor Golf Hotel and Country Club was our venue with every creature comfort provided, but far enough away from Nairobi’s distractions. I discovered that while the opposing parties would not even look at each other in mind-dumbing silences or screaming confrontations in the conference room, they chatted amiably in the bar. 

A hefty bar bill was the price to get food supplies moving down the river Nile from the north to a starving south. The humanitarian breakthrough helped re-set the mood at the stalled political talks in Naivasha led by Kenya’s General Sumbweyo under the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a sub-regional body.

A comparable challenge haunts the Pretoria peace table. How to break the bitter impasse between the Tigray regional and the Ethiopian federal governments, and bring succour to the desperate people caught in the middle?

On the face of it, the chances are not good for Ethiopia/Tigray against a backdrop of mutual recriminations and repeated cycles of violence spanning several decades.  Their political differences are vast – nothing less than opposing  visions for the inclusive governance of Africa’s second-most populous and immensely diverse nation.

While history teaches that all wars eventually end, they usually do so only when one side or other wins on the battlefield. That happened, for example, with decisive Indian intervention in East Pakistan that created Bangladesh, or the British intervention in Sierra Leone. This hardly ever happens in modern conflicts which can last in a confused muddle for decades, as we see in Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, or Yemen.

By historical standards, the Ethiopia/Tigray war is young – just a couple of years old – and does not appear ripe for solving.  That is because the Ethiopian state believes it can win militarily, while the Tigrayan side believes it has an almost super-natural capacity to resist despite the huge civilian cost.  A prolonged and violent stand-off is likely.

Meanwhile, experience also suggests that when peace comes, however belatedly, its quality depends on the way that the war was fought. The more inhumane the tactics deployed, the harder it gets to make a good peace.  Prospects for Ethiopia/Tigray are not promising in this regard because that conflict has set new records for brutality, amounting to war crimes and egregious crimes against humanity including acts of genocide. 

Millions have been displaced and mass rapes have hallmarked the violence, as have dehumanising hate speech going viral across communication and social media channels.

The systematic destruction of health and education facilities, farming, telecommunications and banking infrastructure have done their worst to eliminate a whole way of life. Ethiopia’s relentless siege of Tigray has also stopped food, medicines, and other life-saving aid from entering. More than half a million of Tigray’s original 6-7 million people may have perished already. 

The legacy of such bitterness makes peace-making an uphill slog. It also requires leadership from Ethiopia and Tigray that is not yet evident. Furthermore, even if both sides are pressured to sign a piece of paper, this is worthless if it does not include some pathway towards accountably and justice for crimes committed during the war. 

Without that, there is no reconciliation, and therefore no durable peace. We have learnt that much from South Africa’s apartheid trauma, and I have understood this directly myself in genocidal wars in Rwanda, Darfur, and Cambodia, for example.

I do not lay out these concerns to demoralise those involved in the talks in South Africa.  On the contrary, they are commended for pursuing the difficult quest  for peace which is the most sacred of all human endeavours.  But a realistic awareness of the numerous obstacles along the way can only enhance their chances of making progress.  

The good offices of the mediators must be seen as impartial, if they are to be trusted by the warring sides.  The African Union has been much criticised in that regard  but there appears to little alternative to them, as the United Nations Security Council is paralysed by global geopolitics and cannot play a meaningful role. 

Therefore, everything rests on the wisdom of the AU’s special envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, along with fellow-mediators, former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, and former South African deputy president Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka.  

This is a formidable and potentially intimidating cast of characters who got used to getting their way when they were in executive leadership positions. But are they aware that a heavy approach from them could put-off  the negotiating parties? 

The troika of ex-presidents will , therefore, need to exercise their best qualities of humble forbearance. Perhaps,  a Nobel Peace Prize could be on the cards if they succeed in their efforts, providing symmetry to the controversially-awarded Nobel to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

The background role of the United States is even more important beyond their security and logistic support that got the Tigrayan delegation safely to South Africa. While peace talks may be fronted, for form’s sake, by a multilateral body such as the UN or AU, the sponsorship of one or more major member states is vital to get any deal over the line.

Such states are needed for the hard-lifting, arm-twisting or suitably inducing recalcitrant protagonists to get out of the way.  This can’t be done by multilateral agencies. For example, the US/UK/Norway troika were indispensable to Sudan’s comprehensive peace agreement, as I witnessed for myself.  Other peace processes conducted under multilateral auspices as in several West African countries or in Armenia/Azerbaijan also required  ‘god-parenting’ by other states. 

Conversely, a state that is itself embroiled in a conflict zone – such as the US in Afghanistan – cannot play a constructive role in peace negotiations.  Ethiopia’s friends who have been providing  military equipment and badly-needed economic aid can help their ally best by keeping away from the talks.

The Pretoria talks are set to continue till 30th October. They should not be burdened by heavy expectations. They will have succeeded simply if the Tigrayan and Ethiopian sides are still talking by the weekend and agree to extend or to meet again.  It will be a welcome bonus if the talks manage to bring a cessation to fighting on the ground and allows humanitarian delivery.  

Tougher questions such as the Eritrean military presence in Tigray, Ethiopia’s future constitutional disposition,  as well as accountability, justice, and restitution for war crimes and crimes against humanity must be faced in future rounds. 

Peace negotiations can take weeks, months, or even years before they result in genuine and sustainable conflict resolution. This is often the outcome of many small steps along a fraught journey with many setbacks.

But taking the first step is the most difficult but important of the long journey ahead for Ethiopia and Tigray.

Published by Mukesh Kapila


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